|A young girl waves a Puerto Rican flag during last month’s festival and parade. (Ernesto Arroyo photo)
With live salsa rhythms, freshly made Puerto Rican food, traditional dances, amusement rides and appearances from many of Boston’s elected officials, last month’s Puerto Rican parade and festival were a cultural celebration.
An estimated 100,000 people attended the three days of events and many said later that the festival was back to its glory days after years of growing stagnant.
But to many who attended the festivities, a story in the Boston Herald unfairly linked the event with a violent crime that occurred nearly a mile away from the parade and nearly an hour after it ended.
The headline, “Puerto Rican Parade marred by shooting” provoked angry responses from many in the community. Activists flooded the newspaper with phone calls and emails demanding a retraction. Though the Herald printed a retraction three days later, many said the damage had already been done.
“The shame is that the Herald moved us away from what should’ve been a celebration, to forcing us as a community to take a position of defense,” said Jose Masso, a long time community activist and host of “Con Salsa” on WBUR 90.9 FM. “What they say about us in the media can reinforce stereotypes, and this was in light of a celebration that took place with a high degree of commitment, dedication and quality, so that the community could celebrate our rich culture and heritage.
“This is then used by some of their readers to share their twisted and uninformed views of Puerto Ricans, Latinos and people of color in general, and that is the damage that happens when the media doesn’t do their homework.”
In its published correction, the Boston Herald wrote that its story “incorrectly stated that a shooting in Jamaica Plain occurred at the Puerto Rican Festival Parade. The shooting took place about a mile from Sunday’s parade, police report. The Herald regrets the error and apologizes for any implication that there was an incident at the parade.”
Puerto Rican Festival President Chickie Rivera led efforts to get a retraction.
“This is certainly a victory for our community,” Rivera said. “We were able to act quickly on this issue and obtain a retraction and apology from the Boston Herald. More importantly, we were able to use this opportunity to establish a new relationship with the Boston Herald, one based on mutual respect and collaboration.”
Rivera said the Herald article and subsequent Fox News television report could have had serious negative repercussions for the festival, which depends largely on corporate sponsors and the good will of Franklin Park abutters.
“If our financial sponsors think that there is criminal or violent activity at our festival, they will not support it,” she commented. “If people in Boston think that their children will not be safe at our festival, they will not come. Also, we are trying to rebuild the reputation of our festival and this does not help. So we had to act quickly to let them know that we will not stand for this type of irresponsible journalism.”
Horace Smalls, executive director of the Union Of Minority Neighborhoods, said the Herald article and Fox report are part of a broader pattern of vilification of the city’s black and Latino communities.
“If we are really paying attention, we would realize that the Boston Herald is a part of the right wing,” he commented. “They purposely distorted an event and a celebration of a people. What good newspaper would not fact check the route of a parade? It was purposely done to feed the stereotypes of a percentage of their readers.”
For many, the controversy over the Herald article is the continuation of a long-term struggle to ensure fair media coverage for people of color and marginalized communities. But Cara Lisa Berg Powers, co-director of PressPassTV, a youth led, adult supported nonprofit company whose mission is to produce socially responsible video journalism said journalistic lapses, like the Herald’s, ultimately undermine the news-media itself.
“According to a Pew Research poll last year, public faith in the press is at a two-decade low,” Powers said. “It is because of faulty and misleading reports that people don’t feel like they can trust the news for accurate, relevant information. News outlets have a responsibility to the public to get information right, especially when it literally involves life and death.”
Rivera said the Puerto Rican community must continue its efforts to secure fair treatment from the media.
“We will not stop here,” she said. “FOX 25 and other media outlets also reported this incident as part of the Puerto Rican Festival and we cannot let them off the hook. We must hold all media outlets responsible for irresponsible journalism.”